The Best Tent Buying Guide how to choose your first tent

The Best Tent Buying Guide: How to Choose Your First Tent

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One of the first pieces of camping gear you’ll need to buy is a tent. The choices can be overwhelming, but sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know about tents if you are a beginner camper. Whew- that was a mouthful!   Looking for your first tent? My tent buying guide has got you covered. Be sure to look for my tent buying tips throughout the post!

Before we get to all the nitty gritty of tent features, you need to answer a few questions. Your answers will help you choose your first tent.

How Much Do You Want to Spend on a Tent?

This post may contain affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure here.

I assume price will be a factor in your tent buying decision. It is for me! Tent prices for a good tent range from approximately $50.00 for budget friendly tents to hundreds of dollars for premium tents. I recommend beginner campers start out on the mid to lower end of that price range.

Some people don’t agree with that; they think you should start out with the best you can afford. I understand that argument; you don’t want to spend so little you end up with a piece of junk. But if you have never been camping before you may not want to sink a lot of money in an expensive tent that you don’t use. I can’t imagine you not liking camping though….

Just like gear for any hobby, higher quality often costs more. Don’t be discouraged though, most casual campers are happy with moderately priced tents.

In a hurry and just want my top recommendation for your first tent?

Check out this best selling tent my top tent recommendation for beginner campers.

This is a great tent, especially for first time campers. It is also one of the cheaper tents online, and has 5 star reviews. It’s one of the best tents for your buck! If you find it for under $65.00, you need to grab it! Check out the reviews and price.

Okay, still with me? Let’s finish looking at those questions to help you choose your first tent -unless you already got my top recommendation! If you did, keep reading anyway. You never know when you’ll want another tent!

What Kind of Camping Will You Be Doing?

The kind of tent you purchase will depend on what kind of camping you plan on doing. Trust me, you do not want a large, family camping tent if you plan on backpacking and carrying your tent to your campsite.

If you plan on car camping ( parking the car at your campsite ) size and weight are not as big of an issue.

If you are going backpacking and hiking to where you’ll be camping, you’ll want a lightweight, backpacking tent.

How Many People Will Be Sleeping in Your Tent?

The number of people going camping with you and sharing your tent will be a factor in determining what size tent you need.

Bigger tents can be harder to put up and pack up, so be sure to not buy a tent bigger than what you need. But hey, if you want plenty of room and are car camping – a bigger tent may be better for you.

Some people want a tent big enough to actually put chairs in and hang out. We only sleep in ours, and I personally would rather be out exploring or sitting around a campfire. Of course, a big tent is nice if it rains during the day, and you end up using it to escape the rain.

When Will You Be Camping?

Most people camp during the spring, summer, and fall, especially beginners. For most campers, a 3 season tent is the best tent. Actually, most tents are 3 season tents.

Three season tents are usually two sided. In other words, they have a tent wall that consists of a solid material partway up the wall and the upper sides and top are a fine mesh. This mesh provides ventilation and helps prevent condensation in the tent. The second layer is the rainfly – another solid material that covers the mesh area and is attached to the tent with clips and guy lines.

If you plan on winter camping and will be camping in an area that gets very cold and sees snowfall, you’ll want to consider buying a 4 season tent. Although they are called 4 season tents, they are primarily used for winter camping or mountaineering. They are not the best tents for summer use. They don’t usually offer much ventilation or air flow as they are designed as single wall tents to protect your from the winter elements.

Tent Buying Tips

Are you ready for some tent buying tips? After thinking about your answers to those questions, you need learn about tent features and explore your options.

Choosing the Correct Size Tent

Tents will be advertised as a 1 person, 2 person, 3 person, 4 person etc. size tent. This sizing is an indicator of how many people can fit in a tent lying down next to each other.

If you plan on using sleeping cots or inflatable mattresses, keep in mind those will take up more room than just sleeping bags.

Will you be taking your dog camping too? Be sure you choose a tent big enough for your furry friend then. Also think about room for storing your gear. Kids camping with you? They are smaller than adults so they may not take up as much room.

Don’t just look at the square footage when checking tent sizes. It is best to find the actual tent dimensions, especially if a tall camper will be using the tent. You will want a tent that is long enough to accommodate  that person’s height when they are lying down or they will be sleeping curled up or diagonally.

The tent peak height is an important consideration for some. I don’t mind bending over and just crawling into my sleeping bag, but some people want to be able to stand up straight.

Tip: Check the description and sizing. I know someone (who will remain a secret!) that bought a child’s tent and didn’t realize until they got to the campground. They were looking for a small, cheap tent for an impromptu camping weekend and grabbed it off the shelf based on price. Needless to say, they were cramped on their camping trip. 

Choosing a Tent Design

Speaking of standing up in your tent – that can be easier to do depending on what style or design of tent you buy. There are several different kinds of tents. Basic tent designs are the dome, cabin, A-frame, and tunnel tents. Instant tents and pop up tents are also becoming popular. Backpacking tents could have their own post, but I have include some information about them too.

NOTE: Most of these images are clickable if you want more information on the tent pictured.

Dome Tents

A dome shaped tent is a traditional and popular design. Although they can be fairly big, many are an average or smaller size tent. Dome tents are common designs for 2 and 4 person tents.
Coleman 4-Person Sundome Tent, Palm Green Even if the floor dimensions are large, you will lose peak height with a dome tent. The sides slant in toward the top. This will make it hard or impossible to stand up straight.

We have several dome tents that we like, but have considered buying a cabin tent to give my tall husband more head room.

Tip: Dome tents are great for beginner campers. They are not too bulky and are usually easy to set up. Some of the most affordable tents are dome tents.

Cabin Tents

Cabin tents are larger tents used by families or those wanting a higher peak. The walls are more vertical which makes the center peak height taller, allowing you to stand up straight.
Coleman Prairie Breeze Lighted Cabin Tent, 9-Person , 84″ H These tents resemble more of an actual room. Some have more realistic looking windows and even hinged doors. Many are big enough for room dividers and some like this tent even have closets.

Cabin tents are 4 person all the way up to a 12 person tent. They usually have plenty of room for a sleeping cot or air mattress.

Tip: These tents can be big and are sometimes larger than the tent pad at some campsites.  A tent pad refers to an area specifically for your tent at a campsite. They are usually 10×10 or12x12 and may be actually boxed off with different ground material, but most are not. Often it is just an area of the campsite that would be the logical place for the tent. Some campgrounds list the size of the campsite on their website when making reservations.

A-Frame Tents

A- frame tents are a classic design introduced years ago.  In my opinion they evoke a feeling of nostalgia  – 1950s national park visits, scout camp, and backyard campouts.

Although not as popular as dome tents, A- frame tents are still available for those wanting a traditional, legendary design. Some backpacking tents use this design to create an ultralight option by being able to use the backpackers’ trekking poles instead of tent poles to support the tent.
Stansport Scout Backpack Tent - Forest (713-84-B) 54" W x Tip: A frame tents are not necessarily hard to set up, but they are not free standing. They will have to staked and guy lines are usually used to make them more stable.

Tunnel Tents

Tunnel tents have an uniformed arch design. They offer good interior space and uniform head room. Not as common as dome and cabin tents, they are becoming more popular.

Rei’s Kingdom comes in a 4, 6, and 8 person tent and is an excellent choice for this design. Coleman also offers a tunnel tent. If you are interested in a backpacking tunnel tent, consider Eureka’s Solitaire. My son used a Solitaire for several years. Now that he is 6’2″, he prefers more room, although he still fits in it. Since his Solitaire is still in good condition and I am only 5’6″, I am happy to use it!
Eureka! Solitaire One-Person, Three-Season Backpacking Bivy Style Tent, Black, 96"
Tip: I have read mixed reviews about the stability of tunnel tents in windy conditions. I think one would be fine if staked properly, unless it was extremely windy. Our Solitaire has done great, but it is a small tent.

Instant Tents

Instant tents made their debut several years ago. As a general rule, these tents are supposed to be much quicker and easier to set up. You just unfold the tent, extend it open, and secure the poles in just a few minutes.
Coleman 4-Person Cabin Tent with Instant Setup | Cabin Tent


With poles already attached to the tent itself, it saves time and confusion compared to running tent poles through a sleeve on the tent. Sometimes the tent is clipped to the poles instead of inserting the poles through the sleeve.

Tip: If you are interested in a large, family camping tent, you may want to check out instant tents. Bigger tents are usually harder to set up so one of these may be a great choice.

Pop Up Tents

My children had pop up tents that they played with inside, so it was interesting to see pop up tents for the outdoors. Some of these tents can be set up in seconds. Just remove the tent from the storage bag and it literally pops out and can be staked down.
Coleman 4-Person Pop-Up Tent, Green
Many of these tents are stored in flat circular bags. Folding and twisting the tent back into its storage bag may take longer than setting it up!

Pop up tents are great for festivals and impromptu camping trips if you don’t want to actually pitch a tent. These tents can be set up in minutes.

Tip: Pop up tents may be a good choice for someone that really wants a quick and easy set up.

Backpacking Tents

Backpacking tents are used by campers that will be carrying their tent to their campsite. These tents are  smaller and lighter so they will fit into or on a backpack and make carrying them for miles less of a chore.

Backpacking tents are usually 1 or 2 person tents, although they are available in 3 and 4 person sizes. Some individuals opt for a 2 person tent to allow more room as these tents can be very small. The weight between the two is sometimes not much different depending on the brand.
ALPS Mountaineering 5024617 Lynx 1-Person Tent, Clay/Rust
Weight, size, and packable size are all factors to consider when choosing a backpacking tent. With backpacking tents, the lighter the tent, the more expensive it will be. You can spend hundreds more on a premium tent to save 2 pounds. Check out the specs on my dream tent.

Tip: A backpacking tent is also a good option if you will be solo camping and don’t need a bigger tent. You would then have a good, multi purpose tent if you decide to venture out on the trails and backpack.

Yurts and Teepees

Although yurts and teepees are good designs for their original purpose, I think of them as more of a novelty tent for individuals planning on camping. I don’t know how practical they are for campground camping, but they sure are neat! I would love to hear about anyone’s experience with them.

A yurt is a round tent that is usually semi permanent in the sense that they are not moved often. Most yurts are large (15-24 feet diameter) and are used as a home or permanent campsite. Smaller yurts are available for camping, but the selection is not huge, and they can be expensive.

A teepee can offer a spacious feel. They are fun “glamping” rentals and smaller teepees are available to purchase. Some do not have a floor, so keep that in mind if you are thinking about purchasing one.
Winterial 6-7 Person Outdoor Teepee Camping - 12'x12' Family Yurt
Tip:  A teepee or yurt would be a fun tent for a special themed campout. I would love to stay in one for a  glamping trip. Some private campgrounds and state parks offer yurt and teepee rentals.

Freestanding Tents

A tent is considered freestanding when it can be set up and hold its shape with staking it and using guy lines.

Most freestanding tents are dome tents and can be picked up and moved around without collapsing. Even though they don’t have to be staked, they should be to improve stability and to hold them down.

A freestanding tent comes in handy if you are camping on rock, sand, or a wood platform and are not able to stake your tent.

Tip: If you are not able to stake your freestanding tent, be sure to put some gear inside your tent when you are not in it to keep it from blowing away if the wind picks up.

Tent Vestibules

Some tents have vestibules at the entry door of the tent. This is an extension of the tent material providing a protective covering outside of the tent. Think of the vestibule as the covered porch of your tent. They come in handy for storing gear and wet or muddy shoes.

Some vestibules on large tents are screened, providing more living space to your tent. Separate vestibules and tent garages that attach to your tent can be purchased for some models.

Tent Poles

Tent poles are usually made from either aluminum or fiberglass. Aluminum is lighter and more likely to bend before snapping clean when it breaks. If an aluminum pole does bend a little sometimes you can carefully straighten it. Fiberglass is heavier, cheaper, and will shatter and splinter when it breaks.

Aluminum poles are usually better than fiberglass and come with better quality, more expensive tents. Budget friendly tents often come with fiberglass poles.

Replacement poles can be purchased online and from tent manufactures. If your tent is in otherwise good condition except for a broken pole, consider replacing the broken pole.

Tent Stakes

Your tent should include a set of tent stakes. These stakes may be flimsy and bend when driving them into hard ground. Higher quality tent stakes can be purchased if you need to replace any or if you just want a better stake.

Some backpackers looking to shave weight from their packs will purchase lighter aluminum stakes.

Tip: Some tents come with extra stakes. If yours doesn’t, consider buying extra tent stakes to have on hand in case you bend a stake beyond repair on a camping trip.

Tent Footprints

A tent footprint is a piece of protective material that goes under your tent. It will protect your tent floor and can add years to the life of your tent.

Some, but not many, tents come with a footprint. Other manufactures sell footprints for specific tent models. These can be pricey though.

An alternative is an inexpensive tarp. These can be folded or cut to fit under the tent. Always be sure the tarp does not extent beyond the tent floor. Water can puddle on the tarp and run under the tent. Your footprint should be just a little smaller than the tent.

Tyvek house wrap is another option. It is lighter and not as bulky as a tarp. It will need to be cut to fit your tent.

I always use a footprint of some sort when I am car camping. When backpacking, I skip the footprint to save weight and room in my backpack. If you do this, be sure to pick up any rocks or sticks that could damage your tent floor before setting it up.

The Best Tent Brands

It is hard to say which is the best tent brand. It really depends on what kind of camping you’ll be doing, what kind of tent you need, and what features you are looking for. I wrote this post with beginning campers in mind, so I will be spotlighting brands that will enable you to purchase a tent without breaking the bank.

Coleman Tents

Coleman tents are an example of affordable, quality tents. My brother has used the same Coleman backpacking tent for years. He backpacked Europe with it, has pitched it in over 10 states, and it has withstood high alpine winds and storms. It is not the lightest and doesn’t pack the smallest, but it sure has been an excellent value. 

Coleman has been helping people enjoy the outdoors for years. Coleman tents are great tents for beginner campers. They have tents small enough for backpacking (though not the lightest), popular dome tents, and spacious cabin tents. Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in Family Camping Tents is this Coleman tent. They have also jumped in the market with instant tents and pop up tents.

Eureka Tents

Eureka has been making tents and outdoor gear for over 120 years. Whether you are backpacking alone or car camping with the family, Eureka has a tent for the adventure. The Eureka Solitaire and Midiori are their two most popular backpacking tents. The Copper Canyon is their popular family cabin tent, and they now have a tunnel tent, the X Loft.

Alps Mountaineering Tents

Alps Mountaineering is a family business started over 20 years ago with a single mission: to provide outstanding gear at an affordable price. This fact makes their tents a good choice for beginner campers.

They offer one of the best backpacking tents for beginner backpackers that don’t want to spend the big bucks to hit the trails overnight. Check out the current price and reviews for this tent.

If you want two entry doors and a full rainfly that will keep you dry in a freestanding dome tent, this tent is an excellent choice for the price.

Looking for a two person tent for a couple or a little more room as a solo camper? Don’t miss the huge savings on this quality tent at a budget price!

Kelty Tents

In business since 1952, Kelty has tents for the solo backpacker or a group of 6. Kelty also supports an awesome cause – The Cure for the Common Kid.  Kelty encourages families to get outside by providing like minded organizations and families with gear and financial support, providing opportunities for outside adventures for kids in communities, and offering tips and ideas to help get kids outside.

The Kelty Salida is a great 1, 2, or 4 person backpacking/camping tent. With only two compact folding poles, it is easy to set up according to numerous 5 star reviews.  The freestanding Grand Mesa is available in 2 or 4 person and is also easy to set up with color coded poles that clip instead of running through tent sleeves.

Buy Your First Tent

Are you ready to buy your first tent now? Don’t let all the tent choices make it hard for you. Tent shopping is fun! If you are having a tough time deciding, just go with my top recommendation for beginner campers. It should last for years, and at this price you can always buy a second tent later!

PIN to share my tent buying tips!

Check out my ultimate tent buying guide for beginner campers. Advice, tent brand info, and tent buying tips to save you money and help you choose your first tent.

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